A televised documentary accuses the former son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev of plotting to overthrow the government. Days later, Rakhat Aliev, the fallen presidential in-law hits back via the Internet -- posting transcripts of compromising telephone conversations that allegedly took place among top Kazakh officials.
The tit-for-tat salvo is just the latest part of an ongoing public mudslinging match between Aliev and Kazakhstan's ruling elite that has been going on for the better part of the past year.
Analysts and opposition politicians say the high-stakes information war, being fought out in the country's courts, on the airwaves, and in cyberspace, only scratches the surface in revealing the corruption they say is at the heart of the oil-rich country's political system.
"It's a fight between Rakhat Aliev and powerful elites. God knows where it will end," Aidos Sarymov, a political analyst at the Almaty-based Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly Foundation, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "It is clear that it doesn't bring more honesty to the state and people...The government was hoping to use this to divert public opinion from today's troubles, to calm the people down."
Fall From Grace
Until last year, Aliev was a prominent member of Kazakhstan's ruling elite. He was married to the president's daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva. A physician by training, he served as deputy foreign minister, tax police chief, first deputy chairman of the National Security Committee, and head of the Kazakh Olympic Committee. Aliev also spearheaded the country's high-profile -- and successful -- effort to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010.
All that changed last spring when Kazakh prosecutors charged Aliev, who was then serving as Ambassador to Austria, with corruption. Aliev was summarily sacked as ambassador in May 2007 -- the same month a Kazakh court granted Nazarbaeva a divorce.
In January, a Kazakh court tried and convicted Aliev in absentia for robbery and kidnapping, sentencing him to 20 years in prison. Then, on March 26, a military court sentenced Aliev to another 20 years after finding him guilty of a series of new charges, including conspiring to overthrow the government. The court also convicted him of creating an organized criminal group, theft of state property, revealing state secrets, illegal possession of weapons, and abuse of office.
In the April 11 documentary that followed the conviction -- titled "Rakhat Aliev: A Foiled Conspiracy" -- featured foreboding background music, ominously masked witnesses, and frightening tales of shadowy underground groups hatching diabolical conspiracies.
"Rakhat Aliev, along with his cronies, those closest to him like [former National Security Committee chief] Alnur Musaev, were trying, were preparing for a violent seizure of power," an unidentified masked witness tells Kazakh television viewers.
Railroads, Money, And Audiotape
Aliev wasted little time in hitting back. Three days after the documentary was aired, the latest in a series of compromising audio recordings of Kazakh officials were posted on the Aliev-controlled website kaztoday.ru.
One recording purports to be a conversation between President Nazarbaev and Prime Minister Karimov Masimov in which the two discuss what appears to be a bribe. The two talk about a $600-million payment that the then head of the Kazakh national railway company, Yerlan Atamkulov is supposed to make to an unidentified "holding" company.
In another taped conversation, purportedly between Masimov and National Security Committee head Amangeldi Shabdarbaev, the two officials discusses ousting Atamkulov as railway chief.
A key name that comes up in both these conversations is Kairat, presumed to be the nephew of President Nazarbaev, who was the deputy head of the railway company and, according to the taped conversations, also appeared to have acted as an informer for Nazarbaev.
The choice of conversations about the former railway chief is likely not random since Atamkulov's successor to the post was fired for massive corruption earlier this month and is currently facing prosecution.
Around the time of his first trial in January, Aliev had also posted audiotapes of alleged conversations between Kazakh officials -- but those recorded conversations did not include the president. Prosecutors responded to them by filing a series of more serious charges against him, culminating in last month's trial
With the most recent recordings, which include a voice that sounds strikingly like Nazarbaev's discussing millions of dollars in illegal payments, Aliev has apparently opted for a marked escalation in the information war.
Moreover, Aliev has pledged that his forthcoming book, "Godfather-in-Law," which he says will be out in June, will contain more damaging material against Nazarbaev and the ruling elite.
Opposition politicians say the Kazakh government is trying to discredit Aliev with the documentary film in order to preempt potential damage from the book.
"I think this documentary serves to prevent the storm which is going to occur [when the book is released]," says Amirzhan Kosanov, the deputy chairman of the opposition Social Democratic Party of Kazakhstan. "Of course it's all one-sided. We don't believe that Kazakhstan today has a fair justice system, normal prosecution or investigation processes, or courts that exercise justice."
Others say the scandal, while exposing a fair amount of government graft and corruption, is raising at least as many questions as it answers. Most importantly: if Aliev is the criminal the authorities claim he is, then how did he rise to such high positions in the government?
"They are saying 'yes, Aliev is a criminal,' and they are correct in making this assessment of him," says Asylbek Kozhakhmetov, chairman of the opposition movement Shanyrak. "But they need...to say more about Aliev, they need to talk about the 'Aliev group.' As much as is possible, [they need to mention] how these people so easily came to power, made careers, committed crimes and abuse without facing punishment and why they discuss such people only after they have left the country and when some time has already passed. They need to talk about the roots of this, in order not to repeat the Aliev experience. I want to see those sort of details but this kind of conversation I have not yet seen or heard."
Erzhan Karabek of RFE/RLs Kazakh Service contributed to this report